Chris and Susan Mills of Northfield, Ill., say they didn't set out to breed an Olympic team the size and scope of a small island nation's. But with an encouraging word here, an impelling shout there, some love and lots of financial aid, things just...evolved. Two of their children are off training in Texas and California, and two more will soon be off to train in Montana, Colorado and Wisconsin, which could keep Mom and Dad on the motivational move through the '90s. Thanks to sports, the Mills's most binding family tie is their Sprint number.
In their devotion to world-class goals, the Millses sometimes seem more like a team than a family, with the parents aggressively at the helm. The children claim that they are different from most driven siblings, however, because they have been allowed to pursue self-expression through sports, that their parents never declared any specific goals for their progeny, only that they go forward. The kids have taken it from there. At the U.S. Olympic Festival last summer in Houston, two of the Mills children won a total of four silver medals and two team golds. Naturally that led to Olympic aspirations in the Mills clan. Here's a frequent flier's guide to this diverse—and diffuse—pack:
?Phoebe, 14, a gymnast, is the family's inspiration. She's one of the tiniest of the offspring—all of 4'6", 70 pounds—and the toughest. In her field, she's the most developed, too, rating just a few moves behind Kristie Phillips among U.S. female gymnasts. Susan Mills lives in Houston with Phoebe, who trains along with Kristie under the demanding gaze of coach Bela Karolyi. Phoebe is a near lock for the '88 Olympic team and has a good chance to win a medal.
?Nathaniel, 17, a speed skater, is the eldest child. Speed skating is basic training for the Mills kids, and Nathaniel, a member of the national outdoor team, has taken to it like a die-hard leatherneck. A long shot for the '88 Olympics, Nathaniel should just be hitting his gliding stride by the '92 Winter Games. Nathaniel, who just graduated from high school, plans to take a year off to train in such places as Butte, Mont., Calgary and Milwaukee.
?Hilary, 16, is a speed skater, too, though she hasn't taken to skating's solitude as Nathaniel has. Still, she is on the national outdoor team, won a gold in the 3,000-meter relay at the Olympic Festival and will train this summer in Butte and Colorado Springs. This fall she will commute from Northfield to Milwaukee five to six days a week so she can train at the Olympic Ice Rink.
?Jessica (known as Jesse), 13, sharpens her figure skating skills in Torrance, Calif. She has been away from home the longest—since age nine—and has stayed with various families, one of which wasn't very helpful. She trains with Barbara Roles, a bronze medalist at the 1960 Games, and lives with Al and Afa Soltani, an Iranian couple whose two daughters are Jesse's best friends. Although Jesse is not as accomplished as her siblings, Chris claims she's the best athlete of his brood.
?And then there are the Mills's two adopted sons, who split time between Chris in Northfield and Susan in Houston. Lucas, 8, who's equal parts Irish, German, black and Apache, favors soccer, while Whitaker, 6, who's half black, half Russian, prefers hockey. Both speed skate. Says Chris, "We're out to prove it's not all hereditary."
The Mills parents have encouraged the kids to disperse in order to find the best coaching, while at the same time they have maintained a family closeness across thousands of miles. All the while they have meted out motivation like vitamin pills. It costs $53,000 annually to keep Team Mills purring. The children are well-backed in other fields as well. They are encouraged to study piano and Latin, and high scholastic grades are the norm. Sacrifice has become the family code; skate blades and beads of sweat form the family crest.
At what costs have these pursuits come? The folks have tailored their lives to suit their youngsters' dreams and, to some extent, their own as well. Chris, 43, a legal counsel for the Chicago and North Western Transportation Co., says, "Initially it [athletics] was something that brought the family together. Little did we know it was going to take us so far apart. But that's where our goals led us." Says Susan, 45, who has a master's degree in psychology and an undergraduate degree in physical education and is the kids' sports mastermind, "Sports are a religion, right? You learn all the same things."
Susan Sofferin was a speech pathologist from Detroit 19 winters ago when she met Chris Mills, a law student. From a ski lift on Boyne Mountain, Mich., Susan spied Chris navigating Hemlock run on his right leg; he had lost his left leg in a tractor accident at 13. When she saw him struggling after a fall, she swept down to help him. "He impressed me," she recalls. "I knew we both had positive outlooks on life." Three months later they were married.